YOU COULD'VE turned off the lights inside the conference room at the school district headquarters yesterday, and it still would've been bright as day. That's because of all the smiles generated by the announcement that 36,000 Philadelphia students who travel at least 1.5 miles to school will be eligible for free weekly SEPTA passes.

Got that? Free. Weekly. SEPTA. Passes.

More blinding still were the lights from some of the halos burning brightly over the heads of Gov. Rendell, state Sen. Vince Fumo, outgoing School Reform Commission chair Jim Nevels, incoming SRC chair Sandra Dungee Glenn, SEPTA General Manager Faye Moore and city Education Secretary Jacqueline Barnett.

Fumo, who deserves his halo for brokering the deal, said the state will kick in $7 million a year to pay for the passes; SEPTA will pay $3.5 million to cover administrative costs.

The passes will be good only during the morning and afternoon hours. The program will begin in time for this school year.

For several years SEPTA has wanted the district students to use weekly passes, rather than tokens and transfers. But the district, citing the extra administrative work the passes would cause, wouldn't budge.

Philadelphia's schoolchildren not on school-bus routes were the last in the state who had to help foot the bill for their transport to school.

The announcement considerably weakens the city's lawsuit over SEPTA's decision to eliminate transfers. The suit contends that the move would hurt the poor, as well as children who take public transportation to and from school.

The city's suit was further weakened last week when the Federal Transit Agency backed away from its original challenge to SEPTA, and its suggestion that the agency had not followed federal policy in determining the impact on minorities of the transfer move.

Fumo suggested he's optimistic about negotiations now under way to solve the the remaining problems with the transfer elimination.

It's good to know that weeks before school is due to start, this potential quagmire was easily solved. Let's hope the recent challenges to the state's transportation funding scheme to toll I-80 get resolved so easily.

The best news of all? This eliminates the last excuse students have for skipping school. *